Bias-aware teaching and learning

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Bias affects the university classroom in a multitude of ways, far beyond the diversity represented by the people teaching in them. A discussion of teacher bias is likely to be met with the same resistance that prevails in discussions about academic recruiting, with instructors proclaiming their objectivity and fairness in their relationships with students, their research, teaching subjects or teaching methods.

Bias-aware teaching and learning

However, research shows that teacher bias may affect negatively the time devoted to, or preconceived notions of the ability of, students who differ from the prevailing norm, such as those of a racial background different from the teacher, students from low-income backgrounds or female students. Just as male teachers are more likely to receive positive evaluations than their female colleagues, research suggests that male students are sometimes given more attention and opportunity to contribute than female students.


Whereas conscious bias against particular students may derive from racist or sexist impulses, unconscious bias is more likely to derive from the part of the brain that historically ensured the survival of the human race by enabling us to stick with the group, by recognizing patterns of threat and survival, and generally by making fast judgements based on quick impressions. So, when a teacher decides on a visual example of an athlete, a beautician, a CEO or a chemist for use in teaching materials, she may perpetuate the gendered and racialized stereotypes that are reproduced continuously in many cultures and daily interactions, without “wanting” to do so or even being aware of doing so.   


This has potentially negative effects for the educational development and career opportunities for those students who end up being adversely affected by such micro-decisions. With a disproportionate number of male scientists and teachers in certain academic fields including STEM, and classroom cultures that may grant female students less opportunity to thrive than male students, academic institutions are running the risk of perpetuating notions that those fields of teaching and research are male spaces. Particularly for STEM fields, this tendency may exclude potential input from female students and teachers that might benefit the entire field with the accumulated effect of producing fewer female graduates to meet the future demand for STEM expertise in many countries.


What can you do about your biases?


Generally, it is important to acknowledge that everybody has biases. You can map yours e.g. through the Harvard bias test, engage in dialogue with your colleagues or friends about them and discuss possible ways to mitigate their impact. If you are a teacher, you can enable a classroom environment that is a psychologically safe space for everyone, where everyone can be included and able to be themselves. You may achieve this by encouraging participation from under-represented groups and ensure that students articulate their own stories, particularly if they differ from the norm. You can encourage all students to speak out against injustice and bias. You can choose subjects and examples that do not play into stereotypes about e.g. racial identity, sexual orientation or gender roles – and indeed may break or challenge these very norms and stereotypes. You can use diverse learning styles and encourage critical thinking at all levels. Such an approach may also inspire entire institutions to develop anti-bias curricula. Finally, you can record your teaching and supervision – to apply a reflective and observational approach to your own teaching practices, e.g. see if you devote more time to certain students and if there are differences in your interactions with them.


Two examples from SDU


While marking papers or oral exams, you should avoid gut reactions, and map out clear criteria for evaluation. Higher education institutions need to address bias systematically not solely in the instructor’s didactic communication, but also in the assessment. Just as recruitment diversity benefits from levels of anonymity (examples of blind auditions for symphony orchestras are practically folkloric at this point), anonymized marking may mitigate the effects of assessor biases. Oral exams are commonly used at Danish higher education institutions, and here we need other measures than those described above to mitigate the detrimental effects of bias including potential preconceived expectations of a student’s ability.


One specific example of such a measure is a checklist and assessment resource designed to support teachers in the mitigation of bias during oral exams at SDU. This checklist was piloted in the fall of 2019 in an interdisciplinary engineering course with about two thirds male students and one third female students. The purpose of the pilot study is not to identify teacher bias but to evaluate the effectiveness of the checklist and assessment resource in supporting criteria-aligned and transparent oral exams, and to identify what further measures could be taken. The checklist contains recommended practices for use during the course, in the exam situation and after the exam. The resource includes an oral exam question rubric, co-developed with the students, to encourage the incorporation of questions with different levels of complexity, to ensure that all students are given opportunities to excel. Data from observations of the oral exams, an interview with the course teacher and a student focus group are currently being analyzed. The findings from this pilot study, will inform the second iteration of the checklist and assessment resource. Read more about SDU’s resource for Unlimited Thinking and Teaching here.


SDU’s Faculty of Engineering provides another example of how to target the gender balance in the classroom and establish inclusive cultures. A recent project here initiated a multipronged approach to train student ambassadors to create a more diverse and gender-balanced environment, in part to ensure that female high school students do not fail to consider studies and professions in engineering due to misperceptions that engineering is not for girls and women. Student ambassadors were trained to recognize bias, how bias may affect recruitment to the faculty’s programs, and supplied with practical strategies for including all students and applicants, in part by using anti-bias checklists for interaction and reflections on previous interactions with potential SDU students.      


So, even though unconscious bias in teaching and learning may seem abstract and difficult to overcome, there are very specific and practical measures to take to ensure that students consider all educational programs, and they are given a fair opportunity to excel as they work toward the profession they desire.  

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